John Self is mercilessly corrupt. Amis pulls out all the stops in his effort to make this most ordinary of mortals — awful. But we’re not filled with awe: hatred, disgust — any of these things. What strikes us most immediately is how pitiful he is. We feel sorry for him. If that was Amis’ aim, he has succeeded. Self doesn’t exude power, just a potential for self-destruction. And he’s happy with it. He ambles along and spends his time fantacising about his girlfriend: is she doing it with someone else? Selina Street is out of our grasp, a siren with a heart of ice.
I had fever. And I had Selina fever too. Lying in that slipped zone where there is neither sleep nor wakefulness, where all thoughts and words are cross-purposed and yet the mind is forever solving, solving, Selina came at me in queries of pink smoke. I saw her performing flesh in fantastic eddies and convolutions, the face with its smile of assent and the complicit look in the flattered eyes, the dermatology of her underwear suggesting spiders and silk, her sharp shoulders, her fiery hair, the arched creature doing what that creature does best — and the thrilling proof, so rich in pornography, that she does all this not for passion, not for comfort, far less for love, the proof that she does all this for money. I woke babbling in the night — yes, I heard myself say it, solve it, through the dream-mumble — and I said, I love it. I love her. . . I love her corruption.
But John Self is fuelled by money. He’s a gas-guzzler, a straight-8 with roof racks for the booze. Everything comes down to dosh and he wants more of it. The anonymous caller who gets up his nose is a relic from his past, it seems, but that’ll be cleared up in good time. Meanwhile, John needs to quit the city he’s just arrived in, return to London and find out what’s happening in Selina’s life. Is she faithful? Before he leaves, he rummages around in his pockets for some crushed bills.
In the end I had ample time for my farewell to New York. First off, I gave Felix a fifty. He seemed strangely agitated or concerned and for some reason kept trying to make me lie down on the bed. But he was pleased, I hope, by the thought. I love giving money away. If you were here now, I’d probably slip you some cash, twenty, thirty, maybe more. How much do you want? What are you having? What would you give me, sister, brother? Would you put an arm round my shoulder and tell me I was your kind of guy? I’d pay. I’d give you good money for it.
Amis is trying to shock us. The debauch in slow motion that is John Self’s life, however, never really rises to the top. It’s pathetic and somehow cleansing to know that a person can be so crass. The imperatives of money are laid out for our delectation. Fast food, advertising, pornography. All the minimalist subterfuges that some people use to delay disappointment.
But is that really the way to make money? What about financial planning, being an electrician, an endodontist, or a real estate agent? Why are these methods of milking the masses ignored? Surely they’re just as lucrative? But, then again, you need training and discipline to enter these fields, whereas Amis is trying to shock us by showing how someone who has neither can become rich. The horizon slims to a point and disappears in a tiny, technicolour blink. Gone is the suspense and the magic of the story. We’re left gaping at the gold chains and centre spreads, like amazed schoolboys.
Indeed, lamentably under-informed, Fielding Goodney. He smiled in innocent self-reproach, then swung sternly and made the reverse V-sign at the watchful waiter. Two more Red Snappers were on the way. We ordered. Fielding held the crimson menu (silken, tasselled and beautified, reminding me and my fingers of Selina and her secrets) in slender brown hands, the wrists cuffed in pale blue and the gold links taut on their chains. Over dinner Fielding explained to me about the lucrative contingencies of pornography, the pandemonium of Forty-Second Street, the Boylesk dealerships on Seventh Avenue and their prodigies of chickens and chains, the Malibu circuit with the crews splashing through the set at dusk for the last degrees of heft and twang and purchase from the beached male lead on the motel floor, the soft proliferations of soft core in worldwide cable and network and its careful codes of airbrush and dick-wipe, the stupendous aberrations of Germany and Japan, the perversion-targeting in video mail-order, the mob snuff-movie operation conceived in Mexico City and dying in the Five Boroughs.
We get a look at John’s aspirations. He wants out of the porno grind, the spew train, the junk junket. He wants a real life: books, good conversation, a real job, perhaps. But what chance has he got? It doesn’t sound too convincing.
Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: But it’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck! Well, I suppose it must look quite cool, what with the aeroplane tickets and the restaurants, the cabs, the filmstars, Selina, the Fiasco, the money. But my life is also my private culture — that’s what I’m showing you, after all, that’s what I’m letting you into, my private culture. And I mean look at my private culture. Look at the state of it. It really isn’t very nice in here. And that is why I long to burst out of the world of money and into — into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.
The pace of John’s squandering is extraordinary. We see him waste thousands but we don’t feel the loss. Not yet. It seems as though there’s a never-ending supply of cash. John is like a filter for money, a sieve. And the fast pace of his debauches helps to make the value of money nugatory. Filling up and spewing out is achieved without our noticing, almost, so the pain of losing and the pleasure of gaining are minimised. He’s a money sieve, a transaction account, a node in the matrix where the speed of currency is hastened to the point of burlesque. Spastic twitching in a sea of green.
There was a knock on the door and I wriggled to my feet. An impossibly elegant young black scythed into the room with several polythene body bags in his arms.
‘On the bed, sir?’ he asked.
‘Yeah. No,’ I said. ‘I don’t want them. I’ve changed my mind. Take them back.’
He looked at me quizzically, and raised his lordly chin. ‘The terms of purchase are on your receipt, sir.’
‘Okay. Sling them over here. I was only kidding.’
I gave him a ten and he left. A ten . . . For the next hour I took delivery of many additional purchases, the vast majority of which I couldn’t remember purchasing. I just lay on the bed there, drinking. After a while I felt like Lady Diana would no doubt feel on her wedding day, as the presents from the Commonwealth contingent started arriving in their wagon trains. A squat kit of chunky glassware, an orange rug of Iranian provenance and recent manufacture, a Spanish guitar and a pair of maracas, two oil paintings (the first showing puppies and kittens asnooze, the second a nude, ideally rendered), an elephant’s foot, something that looked like a microphone stand but turned out to be a Canadian sculpture, a Bengali chess set, a first edition of Little Women, and various other cultural treasures from all over the world. When it seemed to be over, I went to the bathroom and was explosively sick. Stress, it’s expensive. There is great personal cost. But out it came, the lunch, the champagne, the money, all the green and folding stuff. When it seemed to be over, I went next door and called Fielding and asked him to give me an incredible amount of money. He sounded as though he’d been expecting my call. He sounded pleased. That evening a large envelope was brought to my room. It contained a platinum US Approach card, a brick of traveller’s cheques, and a cash-facility authorization at a Fifth Avenue bank for a thousand dollars a day, if needed. I was so relieved I went to bed for two days. Actually, there wasn’t much choice. Steady, I thought, steady. Money holds firm but you have no power. It seems that, whatever I do here in this world I’m in, I just get more and more money . . .
After Selina, it finally dawns on John:
My clothes are made of monosodium glutamate and hexachlorophene. My food is made of polyester, rayon and lurex. My rug lotions contain vitamins. Do my vitamins feature cleaning agents? I hope so. My brain is gimmicked by a microprocessor the size of a quark, and costing ten pee and running the whole deal. I am made of — junk, I’m just junk.
It’s not surprising, this new self-knowledge, From one extreme consumption point to the other, he waggles his brain at the universe — and the universe signals back. Amis’ dense prose ambles on through drama to hilarity and the death of appetite. The movie they are making shambles on: how will it all end? What about his Frank, the anonymous New York caller? The humour takes us through the pathos a step at a time. The jokes pile up like butts in an ashtray: eventually you have to dump them in the bin. The hilarity is the medium and the message is that even with a 120 kilo smart-ass there is redemption, the positive spin keeps the planet on trajectory towards a bright future. Even in the life of a junk merchant there is something more than nail-biting obscurity and waste.